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Fire in the Bones

Jeremiah 20.7-9

When I was a kid, we had this old fashioned oil lamp.  I remember my parents got it one time after we had visited Colonial Williamsburg.  I remember the oil that they would buy, the distinct smell of it filled the room as soon as they opened it up.  They would fill up the lamp with that oil, and I remember the smell burning my nostrils.  On the side, it had a little metal piece that would roll the wick up and down, and you had to put the wick at just the right height to dip down into the oil, but not be too low and snuff out, or too high and burn too bright.  After they trimmed the wick and lit it, we would turn off all the lights and read books together, like we were Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson.  I don’t remember how long the lamp would go, but there always came a time when the oil began to run out.  And the wick would lose the oil in it and it would start to get darker, and darker, and darker, until there was just the last, faint bit of light.

That’s where Mother Teresa was.  A few years ago, Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk read through 6,000 letters of Mother Teresa that she had written during her decades of ministry with the poorest of the poor in India.  He published many of them in a book, and if you remember when the book was first published, it created a bit of controversy because it revealed the struggles that Teresa had in her ministry.  The fears.  The questions.  The doubts, even doubt that God was there.  Her experience was of such extreme poverty, of systemic brokenness that left so many victims beaten and emaciated and lonely and afraid.  And at times, it almost overwhelmed her.  She was also lonely and afraid and wondered where God was, if God was, in the face of such devastating darkness.  She was like that oil lamp, when the oil had almost run out.  More than once, the light of her calling got darker and darker and darker, until all that was left was just the last, faint bit of light.

That’s where Jeremiah was, too.  Today’s passage deserves a word about the context.  Jeremiah lived in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, and when he was a young man, he felt called to speak against the systemic brokenness of his country.  He saw those who were selfish, who were greedy, in the face of one and to the least of these.  He saw those who chose to run after other gods, gods of virility and overpowering violence.  He saw those who forced themselves and their wills upon one another.  So, he chose to speak out against them.  To say what they were doing was wrong.  To hold them accountable.  Jeremiah’s message was that society cannot sustain itself if it fails to care for the least of these, if it makes individual power and selfishness the fabric of society.  Such a culture would implode, preached Jeremiah, would implode, would fall apart.

But…it didn’t.

After years of preaching that injustice and selfishness and violence were going to destroy their society, it was just as bad as it once ever was.  Day in and day out, Jeremiah would preach about the failing of society, about morality, about caring for those in need, about how community is more important than selfish individualism, about how all of those things would cause the end of society as they knew it.  Day in and day out, people lived in the same way that they always did, with absolutely no justice.

And Jeremiah was mad.  Listen to what he says in verses 7 and 8.  He feels like God has sold him a bill of goods, and sided with the very people that God called him to speak against!  And what’s worse, he feels like God has abandoned him.

He feels like Noah, who went out on a limb to build the ark, but then it didn’t rain a drop.

He feels like Moses, who raised his arms to part the seas, but then there wasn’t a ripple.

He feels like God has got him into this mess, but won’t fulfill his promise.

We get it, don’t we?  How many of us look at the news every moment and wonder what will happen next.  A culture of violence.  A society that laughs at those who care for the least of these.  Justice bought and sold to the highest bidder.  We get it.  We get Jeremiah.  I have been away from you the last several weeks, but we have seen the same news stories, unfortunately.  Separation of families at the border.  Poverty on the streets, in a big city like Chicago or a smaller town like Lawrence.  We understand Jeremiah’s anger that justice is bought and sold to the highest bidder.  We understand the frustration over people being treated like animals.  We want to ask God, “how long violence and destruction will rule the day?”

We understand Jeremiah.  He is angry.  He is alone.  He is worn.  The light of his calling got darker and darker and darker, until all that was left was just the last, faint bit of light.

 

But look at his response in verse 9.  “Even if I tried to give up the fight, I couldn’t.  There is a fire in my bones that cannot be shut up.”

Jeremiah never gave up.  That moment was a dark one, but he knew there was a light.  He knew that God was a God of the long game.  Of the big picture. The whole time, there was this fire in Jeremiah’s bones.  There was this “never give up” in his head.  There was this hope in his heart.  There was this burning.  Sure, he got angry at God.  But he gave God a piece of his mind and set to work.  He never gave up on morality.  He never gave up on hope.  He never gave up on God.

Jeremiah had said from the beginning that the society that depends on bravado and selfishness and power and greed, will not stand.  For years, for decades, they proved him wrong.  But then, all of a sudden, he was right.  The arrogance and selfishness of the kings of Judah proved their downfall.  The way of violence failed, as did the nation of Israel.  The last kings of Judah made treaties with this tyrant, then ran over and saluted this tyrant, pimped themselves out to the highest bidder.

And they fell hard.  Jeremiah had thought from the beginning that it was the Assyrians that were going to take them down.  But the Assyrians were just the warm up act.  The Babylonians came in their place, and when Israel thought they could make a treaty against them, they fell and fell hard.  The life of systemic violence and arrogance that Israel had run headlong into had cost them everything.  And the rule of justice of God prevailed, leaving the war hawks and the arrogant and those who mistreated the poor to be led away with fishhooks into a lifetime of exile.

But that’s not the end of the story.  Scholars tell us that the book of Jeremiah was written after the fact.  Maybe after the Babylonians led them away.  Maybe after the Exile as a whole.  Maybe even after the life of Jeremiah.  It was written as a work of history, to tell the story of one of their heroes, the prophet Jeremiah.  One who struggled, but never gave up.  One who cried, “violence and destruction?” but never quit preaching.  One who saw day after day of injustice, but never stopped fighting for justice.

And decades, maybe centuries later, some scribe sat in his quiet room.  His heart broke for those in his own time who struggled to keep the faith.  Who wondered if it was worth it to care for their neighbor.  Who saw the success of those who sold out to arrogance and greed and violence, and wondered if that wasn’t the better way.  In the dark of night, he squinted his eyes and wrote down the story of Jeremiah.  He wanted the people of his day to know that even the great prophet struggled.  Even the great Jeremiah didn’t always know if he was on the right track.  But he never stopped.  He never gave up.  He doubled down on love and in the end, God showed him that he was in the right.

 

It’s a lot like Mother Teresa.  Darkness surrounding her.  Anger and grief and sadness overwhelming her.  But yet, the Mother Teresa of the doubt and pain gave us these words:

“If you want a love message to be heard, it has got to be sent out.

To keep a lamp burning, we have to keep putting oil in it.”

 

Never give up on love.

Even when the world seems like it has sold out to the ways of war and violence…

…keep putting oil in the lamp.

Even when the world seems like it laughs in your face for caring for the least of these…

…keep putting oil in the lamp.

Even when the world says that power and arrogance and greed and selfishness are rewarded…

…keep putting oil in the lamp.

Even when you build the ark and it doesn’t rain a drop…

…keep putting oil in the lamp.

Even when you raise your arms and nothing happens…

…keep putting oil in the lamp.

 

Never give up on love.

Double down on love.

Church, if you want a love message to be heard, let us send it out.  Let us keep putting oil in the lamp.  Let us never tire of doing the good work of Christ, and may it be the oil in our lamp and the fire in our bones.

 

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